The ordeal of 155 hostages aboard a hijacked Indian Airlines Airbus became more desperate today as the hijacking continued for a sixth day.
However, there was some movement in the negotiations as the captors dropped two of the three new demands they made on Tuesday when they sought $200 million in cash, the return of the body of a Kashmiri militant and the release of 35 Kashmiri militants from Indian jails.
The tough new conditions, announced by Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, had smothered hopes of an imminent end to the hijacking drama and reinforced fears that only a raid may end the standoff.
But today, the hijackers dropped their demands for $200 million and the body, the Taliban's foreign minister said.
The Taliban interceded at the request of the Indian negotiators, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil told reporters at the Kandahar airport.
He said the Taliban persuaded the hijackers to drop the ransom demand and the removal of the body from its burial place, saying such demands violated the tenets of Islam.
Indian Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan told reporters that the dropping of the two demands would not have much of an impact on negotiations.
Muttawakil said the hijackers have refused to lower the number of Kashmiri fighters they want released from jail. They also are insisting on freedom for Masood Azhar, the ideologue of the Harkat ul-Ansar, an Islamic militant group active in Kashmir that is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
Azhar's group has tried several times to use kidnappings as a way to free him but has failed to obtain his release. The most notorious attempt was the kidnapping in 1995 of six Western tourists. One was killed, one escaped and four are still missing and feared dead.
Muslim militants have been waging an insurgency in Indian-held Kashmir, demanding independence for the Himalayan state or union with Islamic Pakistan.
Muttawakil repeated today the Taliban's position that it will not allow the aircraft to remain here indefinitely. "If the two sides are unable to solve their problems soon, the Taliban will force the hijackers to leave Afghanistan," he said.
On Monday, the hijackers threatened to start killing passengers. It was then that India agreed to negotiate with them, sending a seven-member negotiation team as well doctors, nurses, technicians and a replacement flight crew.
At least one hostage has been killed since the crisis began Friday.
"Talks are making progress. Negotiations are give and take," said A.R. Ghanashyam, an Indian diplomat in Kandahar. "We are not talking about details until the negotiations have finished."
The mood on the plane appeared to be improving. Earlier this week, soldiers from Afghanistan's Taliban militia who delivered food to the hostages said the smell inside was strong and unpleasant, a sign that people had been sick.
However, hostages recently were seen passing the time playing cards, chess and board games, a Taliban soldier who boarded the plane said today. The soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was one of several Taliban members who were allowed on board the aircraft Tuesday to collect the garbage and clean the toilets.
"They seemed to be relaxed," he said. The passengers apparently were allowed to remove the blindfolds they reportedly had been forced to wear.
The International Red Cross and United Nations have erected emergency medical tents near the aircraft to be ready when the ordeal ends and passengers are released.
The U.N. Coordinator for Afghanistan, Erick de Mul, said in Pakistan today that the hijackers' demands did not bode well for an early end to the hijacking.
De Mul, who returned to Pakistan from Kandahar on Tuesday after talking for two days with the hijackers, said, "They seem to be quite committed. They also seem to have prepared themselves for the possibility that this could go on for some time."
Earlier, de Mul said the hijackers were becoming increasingly agitated. He said they "were lucid, they seemed rational," but that they had become "abrupt" in talks Monday. "The longer it lasts,the level of irritation worsens," he said.